Home>Turkish elections: why is Erdogan still unbeatable?


Turkish elections: why is Erdogan still unbeatable?


This Sunday, 14 May, Turks have voted in a double election. On one ballot paper, voters had a choice from among three candidates to the presidency of the republic, while on another they had to choose from a long list of political parties vying for seats in the country’s parliament. The very high turnout of 90%, which is usual and not surprising for Turkey, has once again demonstrated the Turkish people’s commitment to the electoral practice, in a country where the authorities and the population attach the utmost importance to the legitimacy of the voting process. While most analysts, including me, predicted the defeat of President Erdogan, who has been ruling the country for twenty years, it is virtually the opposite that has transpired. In the legislative election, his coalition has clearly come out on top and will therefore dominate in parliament. And in the presidential race, Recep Tayyip Erdogan came very close to victory after getting 49% of the vote. In the second round, to be held on 28 May, he stands a very good chance of winning. What is the explanation for Erdogan’s and his political allies’ good performance? Here are some explanations.

In an economic context unfavourable for the government – high inflation, increased cost of living in the past two years, but also the situation after the earthquake in which the authorities were heavily criticised for their mismanagement of the disaster – most polls and analysts, both in Turkey and abroad, predicted the defeat and even rout of President Erdogan and his party. Some even envisaged the victory of his rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, in the first round. Instead, the exact opposite has happened. Indeed, in both the presidential and parliamentary elections, Erdogan and his team have achieved remarkable results. In the presidential ballot, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, supported by a coalition known as the Republic, has won 49% of the vote, while the leader of the opposition Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has got 45%. In third place, with 5% of the vote, is a completely unknown figure, Sinan Oğan, leader of a nationalist right-wing party. In the second round, which will take place on 28 May, this party will have to step aside, but its votes will decide the winner between the two main candidates, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As for the parliamentary race, the results are even more gratifying for Erdogan: the so-called popular alliance made up of his party and other nationalist and Islamist groups has garnered 49% of votes, which will translate to 321 seats in the Turkish parliament. The opposition coalition, known as the Nation and led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is well behind with only 35% of votes, or 231 seats. Finally, as far as parliamentary results by political parties are concerned, the AKP is clearly in the lead with 35% of votes and 266 MPs, while its main rival, the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party), led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has only gained 25% of votes and 169 seats. 

These results prompt several questions and tentative explanations.

Turks were supposed to punish their current leadership, but they have failed to do so. Despite the economic recession and high inflation, for which the government is held responsible, people have voted for President Erdogan in both the presidential and parliamentary elections. Even the so-called mismanagement of the effects of the earthquake has failed to harm the leadership. In the areas affected by the disaster, support for Erdogan and his team has been strong. The government has not been punished either economically or politically. The restrictions on the rule of law and freedoms, although obvious, have failed to help the opposition, who promised to restore them. What is the explanation for this? 

While we await the findings of sociological studies and post-election opinion polls, here are a few thoughts that can help us better understand the electoral behaviour of Turks, whose choice is not as irrational as it may seem. Although I cannot be certain, I believe the following factors have helped Erdogan achieve these surprising results.

The opposition, which has shown unity and solidarity in its bid to bring Erdogan down, is made up of six ideologically disparate political parties, ranging from social democracy to nationalism and  Islamism. But it has failed to persuade electors that, should it win, it could govern the country. The very thing that was its strength, namely its variety and heterogeneity, was perceived as a weakness. Indeed, voters probably feared that such a diverse opposition could not be united to decide how to manage the country’s many problems. Defeating Erdogan seemed to be the opposition’s main goal, but its economic programme and foreign policy were not convincing enough. 

The only real difference between the manifesto of the opposition and that of the government concerned freedoms and the rule of law. The latter have been particularly damaged in the past few years, and were placed at the centre of the opposition’s election campaign. But this was obviously not the priority of most electors who, between the rule of law and the security promised by Erdogan, have chosen the maintenance of order, to the detriment of thousands of people who have lost their rights.

Erdogan’s strategy to stake everything on stability, the nation’s greatness, and Turkey’s influence on the international stage has paid off. In this respect, the demonstrations and displays in recent years of the outstanding performance of the country’s armaments industry have obviously appealed to the public, in a country where national pride is not an empty concept. 

Finally, without meaning to again make scapegoats of Kurds, it would seem that the Kurdish vote has been a poisoned chalice rather than a gift for the opposition. The pro-Kurdish party has again found itself in a position of arbiter and, for once, its decision of whom to endorse, choosing Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu from the first round, has been counterproductive. The electorate, who is sensitive to the country’s security situation, has bought into the government’s propaganda lumping the pro-Kurdish party PKK and the opposition together. In this respect, the videos released by PKK rebels stating that they would temporarily halt their fight against the government in order to give the opposition a chance to win actually did the latter a disservice and confirmed Erdogan’s claims that his rivals had the backing of terrorists. For the Turkish population, who was subjected to various attacks between 2015 and after , this was a major argument in favour of voting for the government, who gives the impression that it will do a better job of ensuring their safety. 

In light of these statements and by way of conclusion, I can make the following prediction about the presidential run-off. Given the good results he has obtained in the two elections, President Erdogan stands a very real chance of winning the final round. Indeed, as leader of the parliamentary majority, he will ask Turks to vote coherently, that is, to vote in such a way that both presidency and parliament are the same political hue. A defeat for Erdogan would mean a “cohabitation” which the country is not used to. Furthermore, in order not to stop the system from functioning and have a president and a parliament constantly at loggerheads, Turks will be inclined to vote for Erdogan who, starting from 49% of the vote, will be able to reach 51% more easily than his rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. 

Added to which, the 5% of votes obtained by the nationalist candidate Sinan Oğan are more likely to go to Erdogan, who also has a nationalist group in his coalition capable of attracting those who have voted for Oğan. We await then 28 May when, once again, all eyes will be on the events unfolding on the shores of the Bosporus. 

Cover image caption: 9 August, Opening Ceremony of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (credits: Astro medya Org. Ltd)